Verruca Vulgaris: Warts!

By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

Verruca Vulgaris: Warts!

By Ruth Werner, LMP, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

Dear Readers:

Happy New Year! I am writing this in early December when the challenges of the holiday season are still in front of me, and the New Year appears to be far, far away, but I realize that soon we will be looking back at 2004 with nostalgia. I hope it has been a wonderful transition for all of you.

My last article on herpes simplex generated a fair amount of feedback: Some readers wanted more information on the prodromic stage of the infection, specifically, how to protect themselves before the lesions are visible. There is no easy answer to this question.

The best I can offer is that because herpes is a much less stigmatized infection than it used to be (we have way more serious sexually transmitted infections now!), people are more likely to tell us the truth on client intake forms about their condition. When we know someone has a history of herpes, it is fair and even responsible to ask them to reschedule their appointments, particularly if they know they are prodromic or in the midst of an episode. Outside of that, we are limited to using standard precautions and taking excellent care of our health and our hands. Ultimately, this is very effective. In my years of teaching this material to thousands of people, I've met maybe two who thought they might have picked up a herpes infection from a client.

Other readers wanted more information about what therapists with active lesions can do. Again, it depends mainly on you and your clients' comfort levels. Topical and oral antiviral medications can shorten the length of a herpes outbreak, but they don't prevent them and they don't reduce communicability of an active lesion. If a therapist has an active lesion, covers it to the best of his/her ability, and shares that information with the client, then the client should be able to decide if the appointment needs to be rescheduled.

One thing that didn't generate a lot of discussion was my request for you to let me know what you'd like to read about next. In the absence of a consensus, I will proceed with everybody's favorite viral infection, warts.


Definition and Etiology: Common warts, or verruca vulgaris, are caused by an infection with a type of human papilloma virus (HPV). This is a pathogen that targets keratinocytes in the skin, leading to an excessive pile-up of the hard, crusty proteins that make us waterproof. (Some varieties of HPV cause genital warts, which may lead to cervical cancer; it is not the same virus that causes verruca vulgaris.)

Common warts can affect anyone, but they are especially prevalent among teenagers. They are often discussed as a contagious disorder because any skin that flakes off around a wart, or any blood that seeps from around an irritated wart, may carry the virus. However, bear in mind that this is a slow and lazy pathogen, and a massage therapist would have to work hard to "catch" someone else's warts.

Warts do not typically create a strong or aggressive immune system response as other infections usually do. This allows them to grow for months or even years if they are not removed by other means. That said, they are notoriously tenacious, and many self-administered remedies (specifically with salicylic acid) may miss some infected cells deep in the lesion, leading to secondary rings of warts around the original site of infection.

Signs and Symptoms: Warts look like hard, cauliflower-shaped growths on the skin. They are especially common around joints on knuckles, fingers, elbows, and knees. They can also grow on the plantar surface of the foot (these are plantar warts), where they protrude upward into the soft tissues, causing pain and making it difficult to walk. It is important to be able to distinguish between plantar warts and callus, which can have a similar appearance. Some key differentiating factors:

  • Plantar warts grow anywhere on the bottom of the foot; callus grows in areas that receive the most wear-and-tear.
  • Plantar warts grow in random patterns and may affect only one foot; callus grows more-or-less symmetrically on each foot.
  • Plantar warts have a speckled appearance, indicating a capillary supply; callus is gray, yellow, or whitish, depending on the person's skin tones.

When we have a client who we think has plantar warts, it is not appropriate to say, "Oh, look, you have a plantar wart." It is appropriate, however, to give some good advice about having the area checked by a dermatologist or podiatrist before the person tries to remove it with a pumice stone or a pair of clippers, since this is an excellent way to turn one mildly annoying plantar wart into several large, painful, and even crippling growths on the feet.

Treatment: Warts are usually self-limiting - that is, they eventually go away by themselves - but this can take weeks, months, even years. More often, people try varieties of methods to eradicate them, including salicylic acid, liquid nitrogen, lasers, scalpel excisions, and a newly proven technique:wrapping the wart in duct tape (It's almost all you need sometimes.)*

But where warts get really interesting is when they disappear in response to more subtle triggers. Warts are highly suggestible - so much so that our literature is laden with stories of how people have rid themselves of warts.

The plot of Tom Sawyer turns on his swinging a black cat over an unconsecrated grave at midnight, all to cure his warts so Tom can take Becky to the picnic.

Other folk remedies include rubbing the wart with a rooster comb and then burying it; wrapping a horsehair around the wart and sleeping on it; "selling" the warts to a loving relative; and, of course, the time-honored potato cure. These instructions came verbatim from one of my students: "Cut a potato into six pieces. Bury each piece in a different place, and never tell anyone where you buried them. Your warts will fall off in two weeks, because mine did."

All this points to a remarkable connection between belief systems and immune system activity. If a person at any level believes that having her Russian grandmother chant and then spit on her warts (another cure shared by a student) will work, it works! The branch of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology specifically addresses the often-mysterious links between mental and emotional state and immune system status. The study of warts may provide a "way in" to explore this highly promising field.

Massage and Warts: Massage therapists should consider warts to be local contraindications. Massage won't make them go away (unless the client thinks it will!), but the flaking skin or any crusting around the wart may carry some virus that may spread. Minimizing direct contact with the wart is adequate; however, this again is a slow and lazy pathogen that doesn't easily or aggressively spread from one person to another.

For next time: I've had a few general requests to address topics specific to our aging population: Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, in particular. Other readers have been interested in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. What would you like to read about? Let me know: What's on your table? All my best wishes for a healthy and happy 2005!

*Focht DR, Spicer C, Fairchok MP. The efficacy of duct tape vs cryotherapy in the treatment of verruca vulgaris (the common wart).
Accessed summer 2003.